Ask an Academic: Deenan Pillay
By Sophie Vinter, on 22 January 2020
Deenan Pillay, Professor of Virology at UCL Division of Infection and Immunity, is preparing to begin his three-year term as UCL Pro-Vice-Provost International (PVPI), succeeding Professor Dame Hazel Genn.
The PVPI provides engaging, inspirational and strategic academic leadership for UCL’s networks of Regional Pro-Vice-Provosts and Vice-Deans International.
Until recently, Deenan was also seconded from UCL as Director of the Africa Health Research Institute (AHRI), where he focused on clinical, population and laboratory-based studies to limit the spread of HIV.
Please can you give us a brief overview of what the Africa Health Research Institute does?
AHRI is a 600-strong research institute in KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa focusing on HIV, TB and related diseases. One of its key characteristics is its work across disciplines from heath systems and behaviour through to molecular biology. It has two campuses, one in rural northern KZN based around a population surveillance infrastructure, and another laboratory base 3 hours drive south, at the Nelson Mandela School of Medicine in Durban. The major funding stream is from the Wellcome Trust, as one of the WT Africa and Asia Programmes, which is more than doubled through external grant income, leading to a total annual research budget of around 15 million pounds.
How did your own research interests align with AHRI?
My interest in HIV started in 1988, when I started my clinical specialisation in Virology. HIV had recently been identified as the cause of AIDS, and there was immense pressure to develop antiretroviral drugs. I undertook a Fellowship in 1993 to study how the virus becomes resistant to these drugs. Despite this major limitation of the early generation of therapy, I was fortunate to witness firsthand, during the 1990s and 2000s, the translational pathway from early compound screening, through development, to trials and implementation – with a profound impact in changing a death sentence to a chronic disease management paradigm. However, whilst this model of drug development may work in the resource-rich world, it is an inadequate global response. My move to South Africa some 30 years later was a reflection of this inequality, and the challenges provided by trying to implement interventions in a setting of 30% prevalence of infection and with limited resource. My research had by now extended to HIV transmission, and I am proud of the work we undertook to understand how best to reduce new infections at scale. I am pleased that the most recent AHRI data shows a reduction in new infections in rural KZN.
What were the challenges of being Director of AHRI?
There were two main challenges. Firstly, AHRI represents a merger of two research organisations, differing in geography, culture, research disciplines, and ethos, despite both having a focus on HIV and TB research. AHRI was formed in 2016, and so the development of a single mission remains an ongoing process. Secondly, and relatedly, is the development of cross-disciplinary research towards our goals of reducing HIV and TB morbidity and mortality. Much is written about how the major solutions to global problems will require cross-disciplinary approaches – this is more difficult in practice!
How is UCL engaged in AHRI?
AHRI is an independent research institute, with a board to which the Director is accountable. UCL has a seat on that board, and is an important stakeholder. Indeed, the Wellcome Trust grant to AHRI is via UCL, and therefore UCL is held responsible by the WT for overall academic performance and governance. UCL also employs the Director and a number of other Faculty members. Having said that, there are other stakeholders, including the University of KwaZulu-Natal, and a strong push for AHRI to be a truly South African research institute, and growing local capacity. In keeping with the UCL ethos of global engagement, future collaboration will be far more likely based around researchers being based full-time at AHRI, than the old colonial model of samples and data flowing from South Africa for analysis in London! I would encourage UCL staff and students interested in working with AHRI to speak to the new Director, Professor Willem Hanekom.
You’ve recently been appointed as Pro-Vice-Provost (International) at UCL’s Global Engagement Office. What are you most looking forward to about this role?
UCL has an increasingly important global role. Firstly, to create students who are comfortable as global citizens. And secondly to bring expertise to bear on the key issues of global importance. I am looking forward to contributing to the vision of ‘London’s Global University’, and getting a better sense of the huge wealth of impactful research and teaching across our campuses.
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